Exploring guilt along the grief journey

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Two women hug each other as they face away from the camera looking out of a window onto a winter scene.

In this blog, Lisa talks about guilt – an emotion often overlooked in the grief experience.

Guilt is an emotion that we are all familiar with in one way or another. Guilt is that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you have done something wrong, or something you perceive to be morally wrong, or have failed to do something. Guilt is a normal sentiment to have, however, in excess it can be a huge weight to bear alone and it is often not deserved.

Guilt is often associated with grief and the grief process. This can be fleeting moments of the emotion or as with me, it can take over. Many bereaved people have guilt, to varying degrees, associated with either the deceased or with their death. Lots of bereaved people have regret that can be associated with guilt after the loss of a loved one. There are no set reasons why someone may feel guilt; their reasoning may be unique to them and/or their relationship with the deceased. Guilt and grief can also leave those remaining asking “what if?” which, in my opinion is the hardest regret. What if you had done something differently, would the outcome have been different? We will never know the answer to these musings and so it can be an added torture in grief.

My experience of guilt in grief

I have experienced two hugely significant and difficult losses in my life, so far. I lost my daughter through a late miscarriage in 2009 and I lost my Mum in 2018. After both of these losses I was crippled with guilt and sadness. The way the guilt presented itself was very different in both losses.

I lost my daughter in traumatic circumstances when I was quite young. I wasn’t planning on falling pregnant and so when I lost her I internalised a lot of the anger and guilt. I thought that because she wasn’t planned I somehow deserved what happened, that maybe because I hadn’t been trying for a baby when I fell pregnant that somehow I didn’t want her enough. That wasn’t true, from the second I saw the positive pregnancy test I felt a strong maternal instinct and I wanted my baby more than anything, despite the obstacles ahead of me being an unprepared, young mum.

The guilt swirled around me

Life had a different plan and she died in June 2009. I was in shock; I went through the majority of the loss and grief alone as I was too ashamed, confused and devastated to talk about it. In terms of guilt, I felt I should have wanted her more, should have protected her more. That’s a mother’s job, to protect her young. As I was miscarrying her I protectively cradled my tummy, desperate for her to stay with me. I felt that I had done something wrong that had caused her to die. Was it that I didn’t love her enough? Was it that I slept in the wrong position? Was that steak I had last week cooked enough? Was the bath too hot last night? The guilt swirled around me.

Blaming myself

I think that because I never got a reason for what happened I had to find my own, I had to blame someone or something and when there wasn’t anything I blamed myself. I was young and rather than dealing with this loss and the weight of guilt that consumed me healthily I pressed ‘self destruct’. I went out heavily drinking and partying most weekends as a way to hide my despair, I engaged in self-harm regularly and I couldn’t voice my pain to anyone. It was only years later that I received support from a counsellor that things began to change for me.

Losing Mum hit me hard. It was a sudden and unexpected death. I was there with her when the hospital staff made the decision there was nothing else they could do for her after almost an hour of fighting to save her. I shed a few tears but I was mainly numb from the shock. I remained like it for weeks; it took a while to obtain cause of death. Once I had this I instantly blamed myself.

Even though I had an answer this time I still blamed myself just as much as I did with my daughter. I did some research into her cause of death and found that it is rare and if she had got to hospital sooner she was likely to have lived. I became paralysed with guilt. I beat myself up emotionally for months. I thought it was my fault that my Mum died, that if I had got her to hospital sooner she would have lived.

Moving forward in my grief journey

After months of guilt I realised that my Mum wouldn’t want this for me. She wouldn’t have wanted me to feel guilty for something I logically had no control over. I spoke to people about my feelings and slowly they began to feel less heavy.

I still have days where guilt from both losses is overwhelming but when I feel like this I try and reach out to someone who understands. I think the main thing with guilt is that by definition you feel embarrassed by it. However after connecting with other bereaved people, I realise that I am not alone and that guilt can often be a factor of grief. I find sharing this burden with others can help me.

Lisa – Instagram @lisalou300692

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